Guest opinion: In uncertain times, look to America’s principles
After any election, about half of Americans are dissatisfied with the outcome. This year, with two of history’s most disliked candidates for president, it was inevitable that many Americans would be looking to the next four years with a sense of dread. With so much hanging in the balance – the makeup of the Supreme Court, an international conflict with ISIS, our increasing national debt, and the American economy, which did not see a year of 3 percent growth during President Obama’s tenure — it’s natural that so many are feeling uncertain about the future.
But in uncertain times, we can be encouraged that our Founding Fathers would not be surprised by the likes of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton: They knew very well that politicians would seek to control and grow our government. They knew that democratic government, for all its merits, comes with pitfalls that threaten the rights of the governed.
That’s why they provided us with so many protections against the abuse of our liberties. If we want to correct course – if we want a country where the stakes of each election are lower because self-government is strong and our rights are secure – we should cling to these protections, and enforce them harshly on our government, no matter how we feel about the new White House, Congress or court.
First, the Founders sought to limit the influence of any one person on our government by limiting the powers available to each office. As the Federalist Papers tell us, men are not angels — and statesmen will not always be at the helm. The effectiveness or goodness of our government should not depend on the temperament of any one person. Despite the personality politics en vogue today, we are not subjects to be ruled by one person, but citizens under a common law.
The primary mechanism the Founders used to limit government’s power was to separate it: horizontally, among the three branches, and vertically, between the federal government and the states.
If this election revealed anything, it is how deeply divided the American people are. Even divisions within the two major parties are now in sharp relief: Democrats will fight over who or what is to blame for Hillary Clinton’s loss. Republicans in Congress will not agree with all of Donald Trump’s agenda. These differences often get in the way of our government’s ability to get things done.
But doing the right things and doing them the right way are more important that just doing things. It is better for government to stand in gridlock than produce hasty, intrusive pieces of legislation – or to sign overreaching executive actions – that make it harder for the states and the people to solve problems on their own. Gridlock would have been better, for example, than would the creation of the (wrongly named) Affordable Care Act and the many related executive actions that followed it.
Secondly, today we should be ever vigilant against the federal government taking on projects that are outside of its scope. Already, we have gone too far down this road. It is not the purview of the national government, but the states, to address many of the issues that senselessly come up in presidential debates. For example, it should not matter what president-elect Donald Trump thinks about child care or education policy. It matters what the people in your statehouse think. Even our safety net and health-care programs would be better off under state (not federal) control.
It is more important than ever that the people understand why many policy issues are reserved to the states: It is not simply because a bunch of old dead white guys said so. It is because the government closest to the people is the government easiest to influence, to hold accountable and to change.
To take it a step further, we should consider not just the proper role of the state and federal governments, but also our proper role as citizens, neighbors, and stewards of the American idea.
On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton often said, “America is great because America is good.” But she never explained what makes America good.
Our Founders understood that our greatness – and our goodness – are not dependent on our politicians, but on our people. We care for our neighbors, we build our communities, and we create goods and services that add value to our lives. So long as we are free to do these things, it is we who make America good, even great, not the politicians we elect to represent us.
We should instead recommit ourselves to the ideas behind America’s founding. We must better educate our public on the proper role of government. If necessary, we should alter our expectations of what the president can – or should – do. Conversely, we should reconsider our own responsibility in our private, individual spheres to make of this country what we believe it should be: free, brave, good, great.
This is the way back to better leadership, better government and a better nation.
Jennifer Schubert-Akin is chairman, CEO and co-founder of the Steamboat Institute, a non-partisan educational organization that promotes America’s first principles and inspires active involvement in the defense of liberty.
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